Royal National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 9 April, 1992

Pygmalion always promises trenchant comment about engineered social transformation, but somehow never delivers more than a retread of the nature/nurture trope with a Shavian duologue at the end. Frances Barber's Eliza succeeds gloriously with Phases One (guttersnipe) and Two (highly-polished clockwork model, rigid with social terror) but doesn't quite synthesize them into a rounded person for the final act where such depth is most needed. If at times she resembles a startled emu, Alan Howard's Higgins traverses the entire animal kingdom: growling, mewing, exaggerating every movement, inflexion and expression, but seeming rather hyper-natural than mannered. Michael Bryant and Alison Fiske (as Alfred Doolittle and Mrs Pearce the housekeeper) are licensed to steal their respective scenes.

No acting, however, can compete with William Dudley's stupefyingly complex design; scene changes are so heavily orchestrated and ostentatious in their use of the Olivier stage revolve that one suspects Dudley is being paid by the revolution. But I suspect fewer punters will come to see Pygmalion than the play that spawned My Fair Lady, and in that light (bolstered by Dominic Muldowney's "nearly" score) it's consummately crafted and continuously entertaining.

Written for City Limits magazine.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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